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Solidarity, soldiers, and baseball

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | November 16, 2010

As the Giants made their great run toward the World Series Championship (full disclosure: Giants fan since 1953), a story appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle about the social skills of manager Bruce Bochy. It quoted third-base coach Tim Flannery:

“There’s so much more to Bochy’s art – and it is that – than the X’s and O’s,” Flannery said. “What he does best, I think, is keep a team together from February to October. People from a distance may not understand, but when you’re together for 162 games, the only thing that gets guys to play hard is their respect for you.”

Parade in San Francisco for the World Series champs. Photo by AFP/Getty

That is a striking claim: “the only thing that gets guys to play hard is their respect for you.” We’re talking here about individuals who are highly-trained professionals, who have competed in this sport since childhood, who are paid millions for their work, and who – more than in almost any other occupation – understand that their next contract depends very precisely on exactly how well they perform right now. Yet coach Flannery says that the “only” motivator is respect for the manager.

Stories on the Giants’ magical season also add another social dimension: their team camaraderie, the upbeat atmosphere of their clubhouse, their bonding. One local columnist invoked “community” to explain the team’s success. (The 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates invoked the slogan, “We Are Family.”) The cynic in us scoffs. (And that cynic may recall that the Oakland A’s in their heyday were noted for internal fighting.) Yet, history and social science research have shown that solidarity and personal bonds often matter more than individual interest in critical settings.

Life or Death

Studies of warriors have pointed out the extent to which leadership and bonding matter. One of the classics in social science, The American Soldier studies, discovered that, for all the patriotic messages about defending democracy from Fascism, on the ground American GIs in World War II fought and risked their lives for their buddies. Interviews of German POWs showed that for all the nationalistic rhetoric, that was also their main motivation. The phrase “unit cohesion” is the one we hear now and it is understood that, absent such solidarity, fighting units will not fight. (To be sure, one other motivation – self-preservation – usually overrides all else. That is why historically some officers have stood behind the troops, ready to cut down any who cut and ran.)

A recent study took a new and innovative look at this issue. Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn, in Heroes and Cowards got hold of Civil War records. They show that Union soldiers who served in units with others from their home towns or in units of men with similar backgrounds were likelier to stand and fight rather than to desert. Also, Union soldiers who were imprisoned in the notorious Andersonville compound were likelier to survive if they were imprisoned with their buddies than with strangers. This evidence, Costa and Kahn argue, shows the importance of solidarity and mutual support for soldiers’ willingness to fight and for their ability to survive.


Similarly, social science research has documented the extent to which group solidarity can matter in work settings – beyond wages, beyond organizational charts. Early studies led to the “Human Relations” school of management which stressed the importance of group solidarity in getting production from workers. The research in this area is complex and mixed. It turns out, no surprise, that workers’ solidarity can also subvert the firm – inspiring strikes or encouraging goldbricking, for example. But, it seems clear that a work group that is poorly led or is divided cannot provide the extra energy to produce beyond the incentives of pay and of fear of dismissal.

Moreover, research also shows that organizations depend on personal relationships among workers to operate well. Personal networks that do not appear in the formal organization charts are what make things happen. If, for example, the assembly line is stalled because a piece of equipment is missing, it is likely to start up a lot sooner if the floor manager can call up a friend at the supply depot for the piece, or perhaps borrow it from a buddy on another part of the floor than to wait for the requisition form in triplicate to wend its way to the firm’s requisitions office. And companies want workers to use their social ties in such creative ways.

No surprise, then, that many big companies are always searching for the latest group bonding program – retreats, survival exercises, Christmas parties, inspirational speakers, and so on. And they are willing to pay well for such programs (e.g., here). Executives seem to believe that workers who are buddies are workers who produce. (A recent blog for the Harvard Business Review recommends pulling practical jokes: “I find that an occasional, gentle joke can be quite a bonding experience for colleagues.”)

All for One

So, there is good reason to believe that, yes, the bonding of the Giants players had something to do with their surprising, winning season. In critical situations, people give more than one would expect for the group. On the other hand, winning also has something to do with getting people to bond.

Oh, and less than four months to Spring Training!

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.